About a month ago, the anointed star of the Triple Crown was a little chestnut horse named Arazi.
Reporters thought they'd be carrying a French-to-English dictionary just to converse with his Parisian trainer and head lads.
Pleasant surprise, then, that the media darling turned out to be an appealing woman from Northern California who speaks in David Letterman one-liners and has the Earth Motherliness of Barbara Bush.
Turns out she's a pretty darn good horse trainer, too.
Everyone can't get enough of Shelley Riley, whose Casual Lies finished second in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Preakness, and now has a chance to win the $1 million Triple Crown Bonus on Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.
When Riley checked out of Baltimore two weeks ago, Stanley, alias for Casual Lies, still had his eyes swollen shut from being hit with globs of stinging mud in the Preakness. He had been down on the rail, the worst part of the track that day.
"He was a little quiet when we first got here [Belmont Park]," Riley said. "But now he glows. He's doing terrific and has really come around. He's in better shape now than he was before the Preakness."
But how is Riley doing? Is she cracking under the pressure of trying to win all that dough? Has the Triple Crown adventure turned into an ordeal?
Not to worry. Riley is doing just fine.
Here are just a few of the things she's been up to on her first-ever trip to Manhattan.
* Taken a carriage ride in Central Park.
* Seen the Empire State Building.
* Been to two Broadway shows ("Phantom of the Opera" and "Guys and Dolls").
* Dined at Sardi's and the 21 Club.
* Stabled Casual Lies in the Belmont barn of Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens.
* Been squired around Manhattan and Long Island in a New York Racing Association limousine.
* Received a fan letter from the Saudi Arabian prince who owns Lear Fan, the sire of Casual Lies.
* Is the subject of an ABC profile with a sort of "Shelley Takes Manhattan" theme that will be aired during the Belmont telecast.
* Was filmed for a CBS spot on the Charles Kuralt show.
* Will be featured in an upcoming four- to five-page story in Sports Illustrated.
* Was feted by the Stephens crew at a barn party last week where she was presented with a big cake that said "Good Luck Stanley" written in icing.
* Tried on a mink coat and is brow-beating her husband, Jim, into buying it for her.
What does she think of the upcoming race, and the competition?
Riley expressed a few comments on:
* A.P. Indy, 5 1/2 -length winner of the Peter Pan Stakes and probable Belmont favorite: "It looks like he somersaults with every step he takes. The only part I like about his races is the finish. He usually wins. But I'm not afraid of him. Our strategy: cruise with him, lay off his girth and hope it ends up with the two of us fighting head and head in the stretch."
* Neil Drysdale, A.P.'s Indy trainer: "He does such a good job. He's the one trainer I'd trust Stanley with."
* Dixie Brass, who turned in an extraordinary performance to beat older horses in the Metropolitan Mile: "I'm not sure he's going in the Belmont. I think he's a true giant at a flat mile and his top race is from a mile to 1 1/8 miles. So far he's unproven at 1 1/2 miles. If he goes, he's the speed. He might try to steal the race. I'm sure not going to try to make Stanley run with him."
* Pine Bluff, the Preakness winner Riley has to beat to win the $1 million bonus: "I love it every time they work him. I couldn't believe he worked six furlongs in 1 minute, 10 seconds [last Thursday]. Now they're going to work him again on Tuesday. What do they think -- that he isn't fit?"
* Her training strategy: "I'm getting Casual Lies ready for the race just like Laz Barrera got Bold Forbes ready for the Belmont -- with two-mile gallops at almost a two-minute clip. My horse gets more out of those gallops than he would working six furlongs in 1:10. Everyone keeps asking when I'm going to work him? I didn't work him between the Derby and the Preakness and he ran a strong race. He breezed [Thursday] morning five-eighths of a mile at the end of his two-mile gallop, but it was a breeze with a capital B, not handily."
* Her Triple Crown philosophy: "I approach each race with the idea that there aren't just two or three horses to worry about, but the whole field. There might be as many as 12 horses in the Belmont. In each race one horse wins and one horse finishes last. I'd like to be in one place, and not the other."
* Her plans for the $1 million bonus, if she wins: "Make sure my husband buys me that fur coat. It really looked good on me."